New American Songbook

"In 20 years of listening to hip hop, its music and stories have never left me unchallenged or unchanged. Throughout its history—from Kool Herc to KRS and beyond—hip hop has told the story of America through the styles of noir, memoir, jazz and rhythm and blues, comic books and blockbuster action movies. It is everything we say we are, and those things we maintain we are not. This is the new American Songbook." - KMUW commentator, Zack Gingrich-Gaylord  

New American Songbook can be heard on alternate Mondays, or through iTunes.

On the latest release from hip hop duo Run the Jewels, every track is a fist, held in the air, raised in resistance, or a jaw-crushing volley thrown in service of the revolution.

Youngking11 / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

This piece originally aired on August 17, 2015.

A common critique of hip hop music is to point out the violence and vulgarity in the lyrics as a sign of its lack of quality. I’ve always found this puzzling. Americans are connoisseurs of violence. We are taste makers in this aesthetic, and we know what and where we like each particular violence.

There’s a scene in the 1997 documentary ‘Rhyme and Reason’ where the emcee Taz demonstrates how to hand someone a hat. It isn’t enough to merely give someone a hat, he explains, you have to hand it to them in a hip hop way. As he performs the difference, you can see he knows this is over the top, but you can also see there’s a part of this that’s true: there is a hip hop way to hand someone a hat, and it’s a little funkier than any other way.

The term ‘underground’ gets tossed around a lot in hip hop--usually, it seems, in an attempt to signal the superior taste of the person bringing it up. Ostensibly, an underground artist is obscure but deliberately so; slept on by mainstream audiences, and tapped into some kind of arcane but universal truth; the avant-garde.

In 1970, the poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron released "Whitey On the Moon," a scathing critique of the space race. In the poem, he describes the conditions of earthly poverty, but always invoking the gaze of the white astronaut.

The pianist and composer Thelonious Monk is instantly recognizable from tunes like ‘Straight No Chaser’ and ‘Round Midnight’. But one of his most heard recordings isn’t one of his own tunes, and it isn’t even the whole song. 

Warning: Some of the lyrics featured in this New American Songbook podcast contain explicit language.

In 2004, the producer Danger Mouse released ‘The Grey Album’, an amalgamation of the vocal tracks from Jay-Z’s ‘Black Album’ and the Beatles’ self-titled LP, or what most folks call ‘The White Album’. For people familiar with both albums and artists, it was more than just a remix, it was a statement, and on top of that, it sounded great.

There’s a scene in the third Mad Max movie, ‘Beyond Thunderdome’, where Max, recently banished from Bartertown, wakes up surrounded by children convinced he’s their messiah, Captain Walker. As they relay their mythology, they make use of familiar objects, or rather they make mis-use of objects: records become prayer-wheels, picture frames now move across rock paintings to keep place in the story. All of their stuff is pre-apocalyptic, including the functions of it. Now, after the apocalypse, the artifacts have lost most of their original context and usefulness, leaving the children free to make new associations.

In the late 80’s, jazz musician James Mtume was asked his views on sampling in hip hop. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he felt that sampled musicians should be paid for the use of their songs—actually, he went farther, deriding hip hop as ‘Memorex music’, and its creators as ‘the glorification of mediocrity’.

When you take away the words from a hip hop song, strange things can happen.

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